Monday, July 14, 2014

Determining the Theme or Premise of your Story – What is Your Story About?

It’s a simple enough question. Can’t every writer answer it? What is your story about? Why are you telling this story?

What is your story’s theme?

Other names are theme, root idea, central idea, goal, aim, driving fore, subject, plan, plot, or basic emotion.

In How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey, he says this about premise, “If you think of conflict as the gunpowder of story telling, premise is the cannon.”

If writing a story without a premise is like rowing a boat without oars, we can assume that the premise drives or steers the story. According to Frey, “It is the reason you are writing what you are writing.”

William Foster-Harris, in his widely read The Basic Formulas of Fiction (1994) notes this about premise, “He claims the underlying principle is a “solved illustration of a problem of moral arithmetic,” such as Pride + Love = Happiness.”

The premise defines the story.

In the Gotham Writers’ Workshop Writing Fiction, theme is defined as the container for your story. “Theme will attempt to hold all the elements of your story in place. It’s like a cup. A vessel. A goblet. The plot and characters and dialogue and setting and voice and everything else are all shaped by the vessel.”

While in nonfiction, the author’s premise is a universal truth, it isn’t quite so in fiction. The premise is not provable and somewhat argumentative in the “real world.” Why? The premise of a fiction work is not a universal truth. It’s true only for the particular situation in the novel.

Frey puts it so succinctly, “ The premise of a story is simply a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict in the story.”

The options for scene goals are endless and very specific to your story. According to K.M. Weiland, in Structuring your Novel, “your character can want anything in any given scene. But within that universe of options, you must narrow down the desires expressed within your scene to those that will drive the plot.”

According to Roy Peter Clark of, Writing Tools, he uses the analogy of a train engine. “Every writer builds his/her work around a key question: Stories need an engine, a question that the action answers for the reader.”

The engine drives the reader from the beginning of the book, through the conflict and onto the final climax and the end of the story.

To ensure you understand correctly, a dramatic story can have only one premise because it can have only one climax. Once the climax is reached in the story, the core conflict is resolved. In other words, the premise is proved. There are scene goals (subplots) that provide opportunities for goals that aren’t directly related to your primary goal. However, on the contrary, The Gotham’s Writers’ Workshop Writing Fiction,  tells us that stories can have more than one theme, but “it’s best for the writer to have a dominant theme in mind.”

According to Frey, here are some premises that won’t work because they are so generalized they are worthless:

  • Strangers are not trustworthy
  • Poverty is bad
  • War kills people
  • Life is good
  • Existence leads to death
  • Life is too short

However, the above themes can be made sustainable as follows:

  • Trust (of a stranger) leads to disillusionment
  • Unbridled greed (caused by bring brought up in proverty) leads to alienation
  • War brutalizes even the most noble
  • Love leads to happiness
  • “Existence leads to death” cannot be made viable. It’s a simple statement. Everything dies.
  • “Life is too short” also cannot be made into plausible theme. It can serve as the story’s moral, but not it’s theme.

K.M. Weiland gives us options for scene goals:
Your character is going to want:
  • Something concrete (an object, a person, etc.)
  • Something incorporeal (administration, information, etc.)
  • Escape from something physical (imprisonment, pain, etc.)
  • Escape from something mental (worry, suspicion, fear, etc.)
  • Escape from something emotional (grief, depression, etc.)

While you’re not creating themes that will solve the problems of the world, you just have to give your reader the ability to see what’s there. What makes them want to focus on your novel and read your story.

Ronald B. Tobias wrote in his article “The Question at the Core of Your Story” in The Writer’s Digest Handbook of Writing, that theme, “is the central concern around which a story is structured.” He goes on to say, “Themes shouldn’t be some fuzzy, in-the-back-of-your-mind idea, but a viable, working pattern.”

William C. Knott, in The Craft of Fiction, advises “that you start not with theme, but rather with characters who demand to be whatever life can create for them on the printed page. It is the characters who must galvanize you to write, insisting that you tell their story.” Gotham’s Writers’ Workshop agrees. “One way to avoid overemphasizing your theme is by not beginning there.”

Just start by telling your story.

That said, it must also be said there is no formula for finding the theme of a story. Start with a character or a situation, add a dilemma, and then figure out how it might move forward. This is where you let your imagination run wild. The possibilities are endless.

Lajos Egri, states, “every good premise should contain an element of character, which through conflict leads to a conclusion.” The three C’s of premise. “Character through conflict leads to a conclusion.”

It’s more than okay to use a premise that’s been used before. Someone once said there are no unique stories anymore. Premises are not trademarked or patented. They’re free for the taking.

Identifying your theme or goal, in the first draft of your story may seem easy enough, but as second and fourth drafts occur you are going to have to make sure that your theme touches everything in your story. Those choices you made about theme are going to influence how you revise your story.

A good writer will know which parts of the story to leave in and which to remove. He/She wants to remove those parts that don’t help prove the premise. Simple as that. Once your goal is in place, the rest of your story flows so long as each scene moves the story along and keeps the plot moving forward to achieve the ultimate climax and final goal.

Copyright: edwardsamuel / 123RF Stock Photo

The Writer's Digest Handbook of Novel Writing
Gotham Writers' Workshop Writing Fiction
Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark
Structuring Your Novel by K.M. Weiland
How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James N. Frey

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